As the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals begins its new schedule of cases this week Judge Timothy Tymkovich has heard a couple of child porn cases, a campaign finance case, even a case involving a $7 million bicycle accident at the Air Force Academy.
Last Wednesday, in a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Denver, he was elevated to chief judge of the circuit, succeeding Judge Mary Beck Briscoe.
“I feel quite fortunate and honored to have the chance to become our new chief and lead the court in that capacity,” he told The Colorado Statesman.
Former Colorado Solicitor General Dan Domenico, who served as Tymkovich’s first law clerk, spoke during the ceremony.
“Job one for him: always get the case resolved correctly,” he said. “He insisted that we get the case right, quickly, carefully and always with respect for the parties and the people before us.”
Tymkovich was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2003 to fill a vacancy on the court. The Senate confirmed the nomination in April of that year.
The 10th Circuit covers cases from Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah and is headquartered in Denver, where Tymkovich has his chambers.
“The 10th Circuit, to sit on this bench has been a blessing and an honor,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be able to serve the people, the country in this capacity as a judge. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity.”
Tymkovich’s road to the federal bench began at Colorado College, where he was a political science major. He graduated in 1979 with classmate Diana DeGette, who has represented Colorado’s 1st Congressional District since 1997.
“We had a kind of magical college experience,” he said, adding that his time at CC solidified his interest in public policy.
Tymkovich graduated from the University of Colorado Law School in 1982 and spent the next year as clerk for Justice William Erickson at the Colorado Supreme Court.
“He was probably one of the most prominent lawyers of his day in the state,” Tymkovich said. “He became the chief justice the year I clerked for him. He was a tremendous legal mind and judicial talent, and he became a great friend and mentor.”
Tymkovich was in private practice from 1983 to 1991, including a four-year “tour of duty” in Washington D.C., before being selected to serve as solicitor general by Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton.
“It was a really challenging time for the state,” he said. “We had environmental matters that were really kind of at the peak of their complexity. Many of them are settled by now. We had a range of cases involving state initiatives.”
During his time at the attorney general’s office, Tymkovich argued several cases involving statewide initiatives, including Romer v. Evans. He argued that famous case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that the voter-approved Amendment 2 — it barred the state and local governments from recognizing gay residents as a protected class — was unconstitutional.
“In that capacity (as solicitor general), I worked with all the movers and shakers, the players in Colorado politics, both Republican and Democratic,” Tymkovich said. “When I started my private practice, a lot of them knew me, and I was able to develop a practice that involve matters involving government.”
He hung out a shingle from 1996 until he joined the 10th Circuit bench at Hale Hackstaff Tymkovich, a “full-service boutique public-policy firm.”
“We represented clients that had legal disputes with state, local and federal governments, typically,” he said. “It really was a kind of a wonderful niche practice. I very much enjoyed doing it. I had a chance to represent governors and legislators and Congress people in various capacities.”
When Bush was elected in 2000, he named Norton as his Secretary of Interior, and Tymkovich worked with the White House on her confirmation process. That experience helped put him on the president’s radar to fill the 10th Circuit vacancy in 2003.
“It’s a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time to end up in these jobs,” he said.
“There is not a self-important bone in his body,” said Katie Biber Chen, who served as a clerk during Tymkovich’s first year on the bench, talking during the ceremony about what she learned from the experience. “For him, everybody gets the same respect.”
Over the past decade, many of the cases that have passed through the 10th Circuit and across Tymkovich’s desk have been in the national spotlight, including the same-sex marriage cases that led to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision this year and several challenges to the federal health care law. Tymkovich wrote the opinion in the 2013 Hobby Lobby case, deciding that the closely held corporation was a person entitled to religious freedom. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld that ruling.
“It’s really been a fascinating time to be a judge, I have to admit,” Tymkovich said. “On the court we’ve had, in this circuit, really some of the most important, cutting-edge legal issues of the day. Our circuit’s been in the center of much of the legal activity.”
Because of the diversity of the court’s jurisdiction, the judges handle a wide variety of topics, including Native American law, issues involving natural resources and the environment, capitol punishment, equal protection questions and civil liberties.
“The great thing about being a judge is you don’t have to be pigeonholed or typecast on any case. I love the change. I love the diversity of what we have,” Tymkovich said. “It’s almost like opening a new Christmas present every time, you get a little different issue, a little different case. I think part of the strength of the federal judiciary is that we’re generalists. We’re lawyers that apply our training and knowledge to a variety of cases. Each of the judges on this court have a little different background and experience, and you put us together on panels of three to hear cases, and I think we really bring a thoughtfulness and careful approach to those case that helps us, I think, achieve just results.”
Tymkovich praised Briscoe’s leadership of the court over the past five years. Briscoe was elevated to chief in 2010 and will continue to serve on the court now that Tymkovich is taking over the position.
He said court management has been challenging for the past five years because of the uncertainty over the federal budget. Congress hasn’t expanded the federal bench in two generations, he pointed out, and the court has been handling record levels of work with the same number of judges and a slightly reduced staff in recent years.
“Judge Briscoe’s done an excellent job of managing us through stormy waters,” he said.
He said he hopes to maintain the steady hand she used to lead the court.
Tymkovich said he feels prepared for the challenge of managing the court after serving seven years on the national Committee on Judicial Resources, with the last four spent as the panel’s chairman. The committee has primary responsibility over human resources and staffing for the federal judiciary.
“I’ve spent the last seven years studying how to deploy the money we get from Congress to the courts,” he said. “I have to say, that’s probably decent preparation to become the chief judge, because a lot of what a chief judge does is human resources, in the sense that we need to make sure we’re deploying our staff to where the cases are.”
He wants to continue to recruit and retain the best people to serve as staff for the court — a group, he said, that is loyal and motivated, making the federal judiciary one of the best functioning branches of government.
“We do all of the work of the third branch of the federal government (with) $8 billion, which is like a rounding error for the rest of the country,” he said.
He also wants the court to continue leading with innovative technology and efficient productivity, helping it accomplish more with less. It’s important, he said, to make sure the court produces quality work in a timely fashion.
“If I can do those things, I think my tenure as the chief will be a success on the local level,” he said.
Tymkovich is a Denver native and a third-generation Coloradan. His father was raised a stone’s throw from the federal courthouse, he noted.
He is married to Suzanne Lyon, a historical fiction writer and lawyer. The couple has two sons — Michael, 27, a management consultant in Washington, D.C., and Jay, 25, a second-year law student at Georgetown University.
Tymkovich is looking forward to continuing his work with his colleagues on the 10th Circuit.
“I’ve had fantastic colleagues on this court, really gifted lawyers and judges that combine really sharp minds and a hard work ethic with friendship and collegiality,” he said. “I think this court really brings a faithfulness to the law and also a healthy decisiveness. When we make a decision we try to explain our reasons as persuasively as possible, and I think we do a good job of that.”